Lazy Man in China

“This is a China book you read through in one go.”


Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China

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Lazy Man in China is the story of China over two decades — its transition from Old Communism to New Capitalism — intertwined with the love story between former Beijing correspondent Helene Chung and her late partner, John Martin. John is the self-dubbed lazy man employed at the Australian Embassy. His witty, perceptive, self-deprecating letters to family and friends have inspired a book interwoven with ninety colour photographs of China past and present.

Lazy Man in China launch, Asialink Melbourne 2004

The forgotten art of letter-writing brings a vanished China into the email age: Beijing is ‘a fascinating and most exotic place in a repressive and sinister sort of way.’ Lazy Man in China is John’s witty, perceptive, self-deprecating take on the People’s Republic, drawn from letters to family and friends, and edited and updated by Helene.

Published by Pandanus in 2004, the twenty-first anniversary of Helene’s appointment as the first female posted abroad by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it recalls a nervous ABC male news chief warning, ‘There’s a lot riding on your appointment.’

John accompanied her and worked as ‘the token Australian and the token man’ in the Australian Embassy aid section. His images are shot through with colour, ironic humour and insight as Old Communism gives way to New Capitalism. He didn’t live to see the China that she would experience in 2002 and beyond: the cosmopolitan China of BMWs, new rich, new poor, a Tiananmen Square emptied on the thirteenth anniversary of the massacre by a World Cup soccer game viewed on giant screens, and a powerful rival challenging the US in world supremacy.


Lazy Man in China has 90 colour photographs (by Helene Chung and John Martin) interspersed throughout the text. These few contrast Old Communism with New Capitalism.

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What the critics say

Others have written about China today, but Lazy Man in China records the experiences and impressions of two discerning and talented observers during the past 20 years in a manner that is both memorable and thoroughly diverting, not least with the help of its many apt illustrations. This is … a fascinating, beautifully produced book.

Ralph Elliott
a Professor of English at the Australian National University, Canberra Times, 19 February 2005

This is one person’s wry and perceptive account of China at the end of its era of Mao-style Communism … a fascinating insight into Chinese life and culture at a time when the country was going through major social and political changes.

Bruce Elder
The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 2004

While an engaging historical read, Lazy Man in China is also a bittersweet love story … a good read for those wanting an insight into the massive changes happening in one of the world’s most powerful countries.

Kate Stowell
Eureka Street, May 2005

John Martin’s … letters are appropriately punctuated by Helene’s own comments, on occasions correcting some political or historical detail her partner had got askew. Her comments are also enlightening in offering views of her own journalistic commitments … the huge toll taken on her by an almost inhuman work load as she traipsed all over China to cover stories, often with him as the offside onlooker commenting on the often comic, but frustrating red-tape of a country changing yet still tied down under communist hard-line rule. The letters also document the depths of the most unusual relationship that Helene and John shared, at once wistful and powerful.

Susan Ballyn
Universitat de Barcelona, Reviews in Australian Studies, Volume 1 Number 2, April 2006

A duet in letters and commentary spanning over two decades. Lazy Man in China tells of a conjugal life involving work, travel and discovery in China; it is the story of a life set against the backdrop of a country experiencing radical economic transformation and social upheaval. This is also a book that gives voice to a double nostalgia — both for the ‘old’ new China and for a partnership rent by loss. It speaks of the past and the present; it is a touching memoir and a particular Australian account of a unique time.

Professor Geremie R. Barmé
The Australian National University

This is a China book you read through in one go, drawn by the writer/editor’s need to catch and hold images of a Beijing of 20 years ago and of the love of her life who went there with her, reluctantly (and who a decade later she lost to cancer). From his letters to family and friends and her connecting comment she presents a very intimate China reportage that is personal and conversational, with often unfashionable private judgments that could be made without having to be careful. It is at once a wistful love story … and a dialogue between her and her late partner about China as they found and judged it then, like oral history. Its fascination is in how it brings back the foreigners’ ‘China life’ of that time, and the way foreigners’ perspectives and judgments were formed, and what they were supposed to see, and what they saw and thought. This will be its value for those who study China, or who just want to know.

Dr Stephen FitzGerald, AO
Australia's first Ambassador to the People's Republic of China

‘This book is funny, serious and perceptive …  a labour of record and of love, and is well worth reading.’


Nigel Sinnott
Nigel Sinnott, Australian Humanist, Spring 2005